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Suboptimal Breastfeeding - Symptoms and Management

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4 min read


Suboptimal breastfeeding can have negative consequences but can be successfully managed with appropriate strategies. Read below to learn about the same.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sangeeta Milap

Published At June 19, 2023
Reviewed AtDecember 28, 2023


Breastfeeding is widely recognized as the best way to provide nutrition for babies. It gives essential nutrients for optimal growth and development, boosts the immune system, reduces the risk of infections, and promotes a strong bond between mother and baby. Suboptimal breastfeeding is a term used to describe situations where a mother cannot breastfeed her baby as advised by health organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). This occurs for various reasons, including a low milk supply, difficulty with the baby latching onto the breast or sucking effectively, medical conditions that prevent breastfeeding, or personal reasons such as a mother's choice not to breastfeed.

What Are the Medical Conditions Associated With Suboptimal Breastfeeding?

Several medical conditions can cause suboptimal breastfeeding. Some examples include:

  • Hormonal Imbalances: Hormonal Imbalances such as thyroid disorders or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), can impact milk production and breastfeeding outcomes.

  • Breast and Nipple Abnormalities: Breast and nipple abnormalities such as inverted nipples, breast engorgement, or breast infection can make it difficult for the baby to latch and cause pain and discomfort for the mother.

  • Certain Medications: Certain medications, such as those used for birth control or treating certain medical conditions, can impact milk production and breastfeeding outcomes.

  • Maternal Illness: Maternal illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension can impact milk production and breastfeeding outcomes.

  • Infant Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions in the baby, such as tongue-tie (tongue attachment to the floor of the mouth) or cleft palate (gap in palate), can make it hard for the baby to latch and can impact milk transfer.

What Are the Symptoms of Suboptimal Breastfeeding?

Suboptimal breastfeeding may present with different symptoms, depending on the specific circumstances. Some possible symptoms of suboptimal breastfeeding include:

  • Insufficient Milk Supply: A mother may not be able to produce enough milk to meet her baby's needs. Signs of this may include slow weight gain, a decrease in wet or dirty diapers, and the baby appearing fussy or hungry after feeding.

  • Difficulty With Latching or Sucking: A baby may have trouble latching onto the breast or sucking effectively. This may result in the baby not receiving enough milk or not emptying the breast fully, which can lead to engorgement and a decrease in milk supply.

  • Pain or Discomfort: Breastfeeding may be painful or uncomfortable for some mothers, especially in the first few days or weeks. However, if the pain remains or is severe, it may indicate a problem such as mastitis (inflammation) or a poor latch.

  • Introduction of Formula or Other Foods: If a mother introduces formula or other foods before six months of age, this may reduce the amount of breast milk the baby receives, impacting their health and development.

  • Personal or Medical Reasons: Some mothers may choose not to breastfeed or are unable to due to medical reasons such as certain medications or breast surgery.

What Are the Negative Consequences of Suboptimal Breastfeeding on Infants?

  • Increased Risk of Infections: Breast milk provides immunity to the baby, and suboptimal breastfeeding can lead to an increased risk of infections such as diarrhea, pneumonia, and ear infections.

  • Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases: Suboptimal breastfeeding can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and asthma.

  • Delayed Development: Breast milk provides the ideal balance of nutrients for a baby's growth and development. Suboptimal breastfeeding can lead to delayed development, particularly in cognitive development.

What Are the Negative Consequences of Suboptimal Breastfeeding on the Mother?

  • Increased Risk of Breast Cancer: Research suggests that mothers who do not breastfeed have a higher risk of breast cancer than those who breastfeed longer.

  • Increased Risk of Ovarian Cancer: Studies have found that breastfeeding can reduce a woman's risk of ovarian cancer, and suboptimal breastfeeding can increase the risk.

  • Difficulty Bonding With the Baby: Breastfeeding provides a unique opportunity for bonding between the mother and the baby. Mothers who cannot breastfeed or experience difficulties with breastfeeding may have more difficulty bonding with their babies.

  • Difficulty Losing Pregnancy Weight: Breastfeeding can help mothers lose pregnancy weight more quickly, and suboptimal breastfeeding can make it more difficult for mothers to achieve their weight loss goals.

What Are the Ways to Manage Suboptimal Breastfeeding?

The management of suboptimal breastfeeding depends on the specific circumstances and causes of the problem. The following are some general strategies that can be used to address suboptimal breastfeeding:

  • Increase Breastfeeding Frequency and Duration: In cases of insufficient milk supply, increasing the frequency and duration of breastfeeding sessions can help stimulate milk production.

  • Improve Breastfeeding Technique: Addressing difficulties with latching and sucking can help ensure the baby is receiving enough milk and can help prevent breast engorgement and other problems. A lactation consultant can guide proper breastfeeding techniques and help assess and manage oral abnormalities.

  • Address Underlying Medical Conditions: Addressing underlying medical conditions that may impact breastfeeding, such as hormonal imbalances or infections, can help improve breastfeeding outcomes.

  • Provide Support and Education: Providing education and support on breastfeeding can help mothers feel more confident and capable in their breastfeeding journey. Healthcare providers, various lactation consultants, and breastfeeding support groups can guide breastfeeding techniques, troubleshoot common problems and address underlying medical conditions that may impact breastfeeding.

  • Supplement With Expressed Breast Milk or Formula: Supplementation with expressed breast milk or formula can help ensure the baby receives enough nutrition if a mother cannot breastfeed exclusively.

  • Use Breast Pumps and Other Tools: Breast pumps can help stimulate milk production and can be used to express milk for bottle feeding. Tools like nipple shields and breast shells can also help with breastfeeding difficulties.


Suboptimal breastfeeding can arise for various reasons and have negative consequences for both the mother and the baby. However, with appropriate support and management strategies, most cases of suboptimal breastfeeding can be successfully managed. Mothers must seek guidance from healthcare providers or lactation consultants to determine the problem's underlying cause and develop an effective management plan.

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Dr. Sangeeta Milap
Dr. Sangeeta Milap

Obstetrics and Gynecology


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